Hey, where you going with that gun in your hand?
By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
When guns are present the dynamic always changes. Bringing a gun to a get-together is like bringing a pit bull to a poodle parade. It immediately gets everyone’s undivided attention.
Growing up in Smithfield years ago, most young men eventually owned a gun. It was a largely rural community with lots of open space. For many males, and a few females too, the rite of passage from childhood to young adulthood involved getting a .22 rifle or a shotgun, sometimes both.
On farms there were pests that justified having a gun. Woodchucks girdled fruit trees. Foxes attacked chickens. Skunks rummaged in the trash or tangled with domestic pets. Not everyone believed that those facts warranted shooting the varmints, but the majority probably did, although there was a sizeable minority of newly minted gun owners who just wanted to obliterate old Campbell Soup cans. The point being that pulling triggers was not foreign behavior to country boys.
Rat shooting at the town dump was another cause deemed worthy by the emerging cohort of gun-toters. The huge rubbish heap was located on Ridge Road in a no-man’s land of scrub brush and barren crags bordering the outback of North Providence when that community actually had an outback. The Smithfield dump pre-dated the Central Landfill in Johnston, and it teemed with rats the size of raccoons. Honest.
No one went there after dark unless they absolutely had to or unless they were part of a rodent safari, a hunting party intent on markedly reducing the population of the nauseating, repulsive vermin that periodically decided to migrate into nearby neighborhoods in droves. The roadside for a quarter mile leading up to the gate was thick with them trundling back and forth, their red eyes reflecting car headlights like horror movie demons.
Either because Smithfield was much sleepier then or because the constabulary intentionally ignored citizen initiatives aimed at controlling the rat populace, such forays were rarely interdicted.
On one expedition, five rat hunters headed for the dump with the trunk of the car containing as much ordinance as an infantry platoon might carry: M-1 carbines, a British Enfield .303 caliber rifle capable of firing tracer ammunition, a Browning 1911 Model .45 automatic pistol, a Marlin lever action .22 rifle, a couple of other small caliber firearms and possibly a double barreled shotgun. All were legally obtained under the laws then in effect. With powerful five-cell flashlights taped to the barrels of the long guns to illuminate their prey the group proceeded to stalk the ugly rodents, which overran the place.
Everyone in the party knew everyone else well. Each had been schooled in the proper handling of firearms. Two were champion rifle team members who competed nationally. The others had learned safety procedures from their fathers, uncles, or experts at the Sportsman’s Club.
There was a high level of trust among them and a readiness to defer to the wisdom of the most experienced shooters in the assemblage. Yet, there was an ever-present consciousness of the danger inherent in what they were doing, a healthy edginess that manifested itself in lots of communication, constant checking in to determine who was going to change position or cross a potential field of fire. Each person knew where every other person was at all times. Even so, there was a heightened alertness, a type of hyper-awareness that contained elements of anxiety.
It only takes a fraction of a second for an accident to happen that is impossible to reverse, and they knew it. One of the young men had previously witnessed an incident that horrified him. An elderly and very inexperienced would-be hunter and his son trespassing on private agricultural property had been approached by the farm-owner. Wearing unusually thick glasses and walking with an infirm gait, the old man, who was carrying an antique heavy .10 gauge shotgun, resisted the request of the landowner to leave.
He had his weapon pointed toward the farmer’s feet. In a conciliatory gesture he broke open the breach but wove back and forth unsteadily. Seeming to find it difficult to balance with the gun open, he suddenly snapped it closed whereby both barrels fired. The recoil forced the chamber-toggle back into his thumb, which began to bleed profusely. Meanwhile the discharge blew a divot of orchard grass in the air directly in front of the landowner’s feet. The reaction on all sides was volcanic and instantaneous. The old man’s son snatched the shotgun away from his father. The farm owner, adrenalin rushing, white with panic, gave the muttering fool his handkerchief to staunch the blood from his thumb and demanded loudly that they leave and never come back. Everybody was shaking with fear and relief at the same time.
Wherever there is a gun it dominates the scene. Like a magnet among iron filings, it polarizes the attitudes and consciousness of the people around it. No one is truly neutral about guns when they are in proximity to them. Their presence is a constant context for the group’s behavior. Guns exist to be fired. So, always there is (mostly) unarticulated tension and apprehension. Some people grow wary. Even the experienced feel a very healthy respect.
There is a reflexive assessment of the gun-carrying person’s stability, a metaphorical holding of the breath until reassured that there is little threat. The anxiety is sometimes articulated as: “guns make me nervous.” Actually, those licensed to carry them count on it.
The right to bear arms is guaranteed in the Constitution. Under law-abiding circumstances so is the right not to be shot. Both rights should be protected. Doing so is a challenge, but not doing so is unthinkable.